Pissed Off About Illegal Immigration? Blame the White Guys in Suits

With immigration reform in the news, it's important to understand what drives people to cross borders.

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The conventional wisdom holds that the one item on President Obama's second-term agenda that has a realistic shot at passing the GOP-controlled House is immigration reform.

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But that's based on an analysis of traditional political incentives that appears to be badly outdated. While it's certainly true that the Republican establishment desperately wants to stop being identified as a party marked by xenophobia, at the district level an unprecedented number of representatives are insulated from any electoral blowback they might incur by thwarting reform.

We shall see how it plays out. In any event, with immigration policy in the news, we spoke with Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, about what drives immigration and how Washington might approach reforming a system that just about everyone agrees is dysfunctional.

Joshua Holland: Republicans took their second consecutive spanking among Latinos, Asian Americans and other hyphenated groups, and all of sudden we seem to have a moment in which real immigration reforms might be possible.

Before we get to the latest proposals, I want people to understand a larger issue here: the push-and-pull factors that have driven a major wave of immigration from Mexico to the United States over the last 15 years.

Bill Ong Hing: Yes. One of the big issues, of course, that’s central to the debate is about undocumented Mexican migration. What people don’t realize is because of trade policies, most notably NAFTA, much of the unemployment that has arisen in Mexico over the last 15 years is a result of trade policies. Mexico is put in a position where it’s very difficult for Mexico to compete with U.S. products.

One of the prime examples of that is corn. For example, if you travel in Mexico today, it turns out that the corn that Mexicans buy is actually U.S. corn, because Mexican corn farmers cannot compete with subsidized U.S. corn. It’s understandable why corn farmers have gone out of business. More noticeably their workers have looked to the north for work.

JH: Unlike the United States, where I think 2% of our country is employed in the agricultural sector, agriculture provided a good chunk of Mexican employment, right?

BOH: That’s a very good point. Mexico has a huge percentage that’s still an agirian population. That’s why Mexico got the short end of the stick when it came to NAFTA. In contrast, Canada has very little dependence on farming and agriculture. Canada actually turned out to be fine when it came to the NAFTA trade agreement.

JH: People need to understand that as long as these trade deals have been around, the countries of the global north have been promising -- any day now -- that they’ll get rid of their agricultural subsidies, because they do a lot of damage in the global south, and they never quite get around to it. It’s interesting, because we always ask for more market liberalization on their side -- we need to strengthen our pharmaceutical patents, and stuff like that -- but what we’ve been promising them for 20 years has never come into fruition.

Bill: In fact, the Farm Bill is a big piece of legislation that every year, when Congress gets around to it, it just continues these huge subsidies. Listen, that’s fine maybe for some farmers. Most of the farmers benefited from those subsidies in the United States are actually pretty big business. They’re not family farms anymore.

JH: The context here is that Mexico had a little baby-boom in the early 1980s, and then toward the end of that decade they had a peso crisis. It was almost a perfect storm that propelled a major wave of immigration from Mexico, starting right around when NAFTA was signed.

How is that wave going today? Is it still at a high level?

Bill: It’s actually not at such a high level. It’s interesting that the recession has affected everything since 2008, including the fact that there isn’t as much work in the United States, as we all know. In fact, the flow of migration from Mexico, people should relax because it’s actually died down a little bit. The birth rate in Mexico is on the decline. There are some industries in Mexico that are doing pretty good.

Let’s face it, it’s all about work. It’s all about people who want to feed families. Still, there’s a terrific imbalance, and there is a flow. I don’t want listeners to misunderstand, but it’s not as it was five, six years ago.

JH: People need to understand that when they’re upset with Mexican immigration they need to look at the white guys in mahogany paneled boardrooms cutting these trade deals.

All right, we need to get into the actual substantive proposals that were introduced recently. In the Senate, we have another gang of eight -- a group of senators endorsing some broad principles. They left a lot of the specifics out. Obama then laid out some of the specifics. Do you think we’ll end up looking at a package that is very similar to the 2007 McCain/Kennedy bill that everybody seemed to like, but didn’t get passed?

BOH: I think it’s going to look very similar to that. That being mainly a legalization program, and whether it leads to citizenship or not is going to be debatable. In other words, it could be a type of legalization where people are left in limbo. We'll see whether or not it includes a big guest-worker program, which was part of the packages in 2006 and 2007.

Whatever bill passes, I assure you, even though I’m opposed to this, there’s going to be enormous amounts of funds and energy put on enforcement and on issuing so-called tamper-proof employment cards. Where many of my allies got off the train, back in 2006 and 2007, was when the proposal actually included eliminating family immigration categories. Instead, a point system was put in the proposal. That hasn’t come up yet. If it does, there’s going to be an uproar among regular immigrants, who benefit from the family immigration categories.

JH: My take on this when I was reading Obama’s proposal, was there was a lot to recommend them, but it seems like there’s a number of concessions to conservative views of what is propelling immigration and how to solve the problem.

You mentioned this heavy emphasis on enforcement. The Obama administration promises to continue a policy it has said it has had for several years, which is prioritizing criminal removals over, say, people who just violated immigration laws. What is the problem with that? That sounds like common sense.

BOH: It sounds good, but there are two problems with that. One problem is that 70% of the individuals -- the record-setting number of individuals who have been deported by the Obama administration -- have no criminal problems. They’re just common everyday folks that are keeping their noses clean, who are trying to feed their families. They’ve been caught up in different types of enforcement procedures, such as Secure Communities agreements with local authorities. That’s one problem -- it’s misleading to say that they’re focusing on criminals.

The other problem is that many of the criminals who are being deported are individuals who have lived here lawfully since they were infants and toddlers. Even people who came as Cambodian refugees, for example, are being deported and longtime residents from Mexico, and Canada, and the Philippines, and even Europe who had lived here and made one mistake. They get deported after they served their time in prison. I’m not defending the criminal action that those individuals took, but prior to 1996, those individuals could have a hearing to demonstrate remorse, rehabilitation and atonement – or family ties and employability – and a judge could decide whether or not to give that person a second chance. That provision was repealed in 1996.

I think if people took a close look at some of the folks who are being deported as so-called “dangerous criminals” they'd find many who have committed only misdemeanors ...silly things....There’s a guy in Houston who was deported because of public urination. He was a contractor who went behind a construction site and was caught by a Houston police officer going by.

Those types of deportations shouldn’t take place. Yet those are the criminals that Obama is saying he’s deporting who are so dangerous to our public safety.

JH: And immigrants caught up in the immigration justice system do not have the same rights to representation, for example, as you and I would if we were going through the system. It’s a much more Orwellian proposal.

Obama’s also proposed gradually phasing in the mandatory use of E-Verify. What, if any, are the potential problems with that, because that also seems like common sense.

BOH: E-Verify is the system that they believe can electronically verify whether or not somebody’s lawfully authorized to work in the United States. An employer can just type it in on the computer, or in some cases, call it in. The problem, again, is that every credible study, including the GAO's, showed that there’s a 30- to 40-percent error rate. In other words, there are many of us who are U.S. citizens and are not in that system. There are many lawful immigrants who have become U.S. citizens through naturalization who are not in that system. There are refugees who came as lawful refugees who are not in that system.

It’s riddled with problems. Who’s going to trust that kind of computer program? It’s of course premised on this belief that we’ve got to dry up the jobs, by making it hard for employers to hire unauthorized workers. As we said at the very onset, that’s not the solution. The solution isn’t simply attacking employers -- and I’m happy to come back to that in a minute -- the solution is finding out why people are here, and why they can’t find work back home.

Instead of sanctioning employers for hiring undocumented workers, really we should be sanctioning employers for exploiting workers – employers who are not abiding by health and safety and minimum-wage laws. If we enforce those workplace rules, I think we would do a lot better in terms of creating a work environment, where not just immigrants, but U. S. citizens would benefit.

JH: I think it’s important for us to articulate exactly what you are saying: that there are much more progressive approaches to this.

Let’s get back to the proposal for a moment. I should also mention, before I go on, about E-Verify: you will hear a lot of people saying that the error rate has decreased dramatically. This is true, but you still have an error rate that is 10 or 15 percent, instead of 30 percent. That doesn’t help. The idea is that companies are going to potentially shy away from hiring people with foreign-sounding names, which is certainly not anything that we want to do. Also, civil libertarians say that this is a back-door to a national ID card. People across the ideological spectrum say that they oppose a national ID card.

There’s another issue here, in the proposals that the senators are talking about. They’ve said they won’t support any path to legalization unless the borders are first secured, so there’s a question of sequencing. Also they’re saying you have to get in the back of the line, as they put it, of a broken legal immigration process, instead of creating a new streamlined process.

First of all, let’s talk about the border security. Will the border ever be militarized enough for them to accept it as secure?

BOH: Along those lines, one of the things that they’re proposing is the use of drones to help patrol the border, which is mind-boggling. At any rate, getting back to your question, first of all, there are as I said fewer people coming across. The metrics that the senators are proposing is through a commission that is going to be comprised of border officials, elected border-state officials. I can’t imagine having Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona on that commission. That’s who would fit the description of who they’re saying would be on the commission.

President Obama has offered a different metric. He would look at how much money is being spent. How much of a fence has been built. He would have a different checklist that would be easier to meet, presumably.

Then there is this problem of the individuals who qualify having to get at the back of the line -- a line in a legal immigration system that is broken. For some of the categories of migrants, the wait is 20 years or more, to immigrate to the United States lawfully. If people have to get behind that line there is a serious problem.

I will grant that both of the proposals – the Senate and the Obama proposal -- the outlines anyway, say they would do something to help clear those backlogs. But nobody knows really what they mean by that. Yes, that’s a serious problem.

JH: By the way, I believe that are already drones patrolling the border. There was a proposal that would increase the infrastructure, but they’re already flying.

In the 2007 reforms, there was a fine involved, and a bunch of other hoops that needed to be jumped through. There was a concern at the time, in one iteration of the legislation, that it would’ve cost $4,000 for somebody to take that path to citizenship.

I don’t want to reinforce the stereotype that all migrant workers are low-income, or have low levels of education, because that’s not always true. It is nonetheless true that there are many of them with low incomes. Is there a concern that we could price these immigrants out of this process?

BOH: Definitely -- that’s a steep price, even if it’s $2,000 or $1,000. Even recent experience with the Dreamers, who are applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, many of them are having a hard time coming up with the $465 for that application fee for the employment card. That’s $465. Can you imagine a couple thousand or whatever?

There is a serious problem. We ran into that back in 1986. There was at least a wavier that was available for the poor. There’s no waiver like that for the Deferred Actions students, the Dreamers right now. I’m afraid that in this proposal for the grand legalization program, they may not be generous on waivers. That really hurts. That really hurts.

JH: I think people should understand that there is this very, very clear dynamic with the polling, with public opinion on this issue. If you use the word, “amnesty,” and suggest to people that you’re just going to forgive the past transgression of either overstaying a visa, or entering the country illegally, they really are opposed to it. But when they pack all this stuff in – these fines and conditions -- it’s because it seems that the public really likes some sort of difficulties, some sort of barriers, some sort of penalty to be paid by potential migrants following this path to legalization.

What you end up with are a lot of things that make this much more complex for political reasons. The danger is that when you get into this and you understand that the devil is in the details, some of these things may make it so that we're not actually achieving the basic purpose we're trying to achieve, which is to bring 11 million people out of the shadows and into the mainstream of society.

BOH: Exactly. All you have to do is listen to the press conference that the senators held. The rhetoric is very, very enforcement-oriented. It’s very, very punishment-oriented. Back in 2007, it was really noticeable … and actually even more recently when Senator Schumer -- who took over as head of the immigration subcommittee from Senator Kennedy -- his staff actually proposed at one time that anyone applying for legalization would have to first plead guilty to a misdemeanor, before they would qualify. I’m so happy that I haven’t seen that on this iteration.

The rhetoric that Senator Schumer and Senator McCain used in their press conference was along the lines of "These people have to get right with the law," that they’re paying a penalty, they are not being granted an amnesty, that they’re paying fines, etc.

Yes, it’s very demeaning language in describing individuals, who are regular folks the vast, vast majority of whom have committed no crime. The vast, vast majority have nice children, great values, and they’re not criminals. They don’t have to be treated that way.

JH: I think Republicans go out of their way to use that harsh rhetoric, that harsh tone, because they fear primary challenges from the right. They fear the base. They fear inflaming Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh said that it was up to him and Fox news to kill immigration reform. They have a lot of clout. The hard right has a lot of clout in the party.

Let me ask you a quick question, getting back to more progressive approaches. UCLA sociologist Ivan Light, wrote a book called, Deflecting Immigration: Networks, Markets, and Regulation in Los Angeles. He explained how the use of wage and other workforce enforcement, like we were talking about earlier, played a huge role in the effort.

In Los Angeles, they basically had decided that they will enforce anti-slum and anti-sweatshop ordinances and they would enforce minimum-wage laws. How did that work out?

BOH: It did wonders. It made the jobs more interesting to U.S. citizens, and it made the lives of the undocumented workers much better as well. I have to say that what’s interesting about that approach, as opposed to the pure sanctions approach, is that U.S. citizens are not hurt by that – they’re helped by that approach. Part and parcel of that is recognizing -- and unions are finally coming around to recognizing this -- that protecting the rights of undocumented workers to also organize is very key to a progressive approach that helps immigrants of all stripes, plus U.S. citizens of all different classes.

It is about employee rights and organizational rights, and the rights of workers -- that is the key when it comes to the employment situation.

JH: It's important to understand that it's not just migrant workers who get their wages ripped off, are paid beneath minimum wage, or asked to work in conditions that are deplorable at times. That’s also the truth for low-income native-born workers.

BOH: We’re in it together.

JH: We’re in it together. Professor, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter